In 2011, the Los Angles County Museum of Art announced the acquisition of “Cranes,” a breathtaking pair of six-panel painted screens by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795), Japan’s leading 18th century artist. Robert T. Singer, curator of Japanese art at the museum, had spent years negotiating an export license for the exceptional work, which certainly seems worthy of national treasure designation by the Japanese government, and philanthropist and museum trustee Camilla Chandler Frost stepped forward to make the incredible purchase possible.
The immaculately preserved screens display 17 life-size, hyper-real gray and red-crowned cranes arrayed across nearly 23 feet of abstract background in shimmering gold leaf. The crane paintings, publicly shown only twice in the previous 239 years, were instrumental in inspiring a large survey exhibition. “Every Living Thing: Animals in Japanese Art” is on view through Dec. 8 in LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion.
Three years after the stunning acquisition, a colleague at The Times reported some startling and related news, unleashing global pandemonium. Despite common assumptions among legions of fans, the hugely popular fictional character Hello Kitty, drawn by Japanese illustrator Yuko Shimizu, turns out not to be a cat.
Hello Kitty, a blank-faced licensing bonanza conceived by Shintaro Tsuji, founder of the Sanrio Co., certainly exhibits some feline features. Soft and pointy ears, brisk whiskers, button eyes and nose.
But wearing a jumper or a skirt and with a jaunty bow in her hair, she’s actually a plush and gentle kitty who has been reimagined as a little girl. The character is a transformation known in Japanese as Gijinka — the humanization of a nonhuman object or entity.
The exquisite LACMA screen-paintings of elegant cranes stand near the top of a broad cultural spectrum’s high-art end, while Hello Kitty takes her place at the pinnacle of the popular-art end. Cats are one ancient symbol for good fortune in Japanese art; cranes are another, overlapping with longevity, since folklore has it that a crane can live for 1,000 years. It’s no surprise that Hello Kitty doesn’t turn up among the nearly 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and other high art objects in “Every Living Thing,” but cats certainly do.
One place is in “Cat Amid Spring Flowers,” an Edo period hanging scroll by Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-1799). A languid black-and-white cat is shown intently licking the fur of an extended paw.
Rosetsu has placed the animal in the lower third of a tall, vertical length of silk, which is just over 3 feet high and a foot wide. At the panel’s left edge, entwined stems of garden flowers rise along the cat’s back. Rather than a defined landscape, the scene is marked by pale, horizontal washes of gray that create a dreamy, atmospheric space, like a cloudy sky.
This otherwise closely observed bit of naturalism also features something peculiar — namely, the cat’s contour or profile. Stretched out, its body curves around to suggest the form of a sphere. Against the hazy, atmospheric background, the cat’s black and white patterning dissolves into cloud-like shapes. It’s as if we are seeing a sun or moon silhouetted in the sky or perhaps reflected below in water.
The cat becomes a mysterious presence, an animal that occupies an ephemeral space somewhere between heaven and earth. Much Japanese art is infused with Shinto and Buddhist spiritual values, imported to the island through China and Korea, where nature spirits are a focus of worship. Belief in sacred power is often assigned to animals.
Coincidentally — and significantly — Rosetsu was a student of Ōkyo, painter of the magnificent cranes.
The birds are rendered with keen and perceptive realism. They parade proudly across the flat, horizontal expanse like avian surrogates for the leisurely people strolling a century later in Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”
Direct observation of nature, partly informed by the artist’s interest in Western painting, merges with deep Japanese traditions of symbolic subject matter and graceful stylization. Rosetsu does the same, except he trades Ōkyo’s dramatic sense of grandeur for a quieter, more lyrical mood. It’s instructive to see the two, a generation apart in age, in the same show.
One other notable feature of these two works of art is that both are in LACMA’s own collection — as are many of the show’s greatest examples. Around half of the exhibition is from the museum’s impressive holdings, normally housed in the Pavilion for Japanese Art, which is closed for renovation.
In addition to Ōkyo’s “Cranes,” there’s a 12th century pair of sacred monkeys from a Shinto shrine, hunched and curious in a disconcerting fusion of human and animal instinct, installed next to a rare screen painting that shows monkeys cavorting on a shrine’s roof; a 10th century pair of carved-wood lions, their expressive, almost human faces mouthing the Sanskrit equivalents for alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, life and death; and a 6th century earthenware horse, a large funerary animal equipped for use in the afterlife by a long-gone noble. The exhibition provides welcome context for some of the museum’s most powerful and important works.
Negotiations have been underway for possible acquisition of one of the most dynamic objects, which commands the show’s entrance. A monumental carved statue of “Bishamonten: Guardian King of the North” blankets the Buddhist warrior-god in ferocious animals, real and imaginary.
Dragons wrap his arms, a lion’s head growls at his waist, a tiger drapes down his back and an undefinable, mythic creature with fierce fangs crowns his head. These are beasts chosen simply (and effectively) to crank up a power image. Eight and a half feet tall, the magnificent, larger-than-life sculpture is a rare example of an exactly dated work, its hollow interior identifying its dedication for an event known to have taken place in 1124.
Spanning more than a thousand years, the show also includes some contemporary works, including playful dog sculptures by Yoshitomo Nara and Yayoi Kusama. Polyester never looked better than it does in three white, pleated dresses designed in 1990 by Issey Miyake, held together by grommets and leather straps but inspired by the fluttering of doves.
To give such a wide-open roster of works some shape, the show is divided into a dozen sections. It starts with the animals of the Japanese zodiac, based on China’s, and includes sections on religion and philosophy: Buddhism, Shinto, Daoism, Zen. Animals of earth, air and water get sorted out, as do those of myth and foreign origin — creatures of the faraway.
The exhibition was jointly organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it was seen over the summer, the Japan Foundation in Tokyo and LACMA, with Singer and scholar Kawai Masatomo as co-curators. It ranges far and wide, featuring marvelous loans from scores of public and private collections in the U.S. and Japan.
If there’s a shortcoming, it’s only that the exhibition was trimmed by nearly a third for presentation here, perhaps a casualty of the museum’s truncated gallery space as LACMA’s planned building program gets underway. That’s a shame, given the surprisingly unprecedented subject, but there is still plenty to see. You’ll leave wondering: Do animals play such a pervasive role in the art of any other culture?
When: Through Dec. 8; closed Wednesdays and Thanksgiving Day
Admission: $10-$25 (see website for discounts and free periods)
Info: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org